“They Only Do One Black Movie a Year”: Robert Townsend on Hollywood Shuffle
In the mid-1980s, actor and comedian Robert Townsend had scored supporting roles in films like A Soldier’s Story and Streets of Fire, but was still limited in the opportunities available to him as a black performer. Frustrated by the lack of roles, Townsend created one for himself – and directed a landmark in American independent cinema in the process – by helming Hollywood Shuffle, a self-financed comedy about a young actor whose experiences mirrored Townsend’s own. Bobby Taylor (Townsend) is an aspiring thespian who dreams of playing superheroes and Shakespearean kings but mostly finds himself auditioning to play pimps and gang members – all the while being critiqued by white producers and casting directors who don’t think he’s playing it “black enough.” Townsend and co-writer Keenen Ivory Wayans use Bobby’s story as the spine for a series of brilliantly funny films-within-the-film that satirize American film iconography (there are skits riffing on Dirty Harry, Indiana Jones, Humphrey Bogart, and others) from a black perspective, exposing racism in Hollywood and doing something about it at the same time.
It was a revolutionary achievement when it came out in 1987 as part of the pre-sex, lies and videotape independent film movement that also included Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee’s early work, and its comic set pieces have aged beautifully. Sequences like the Siskel & Ebert parody “Sneakin’ Into the Movies” and a “Black Acting School” infomercial remain trenchant and hilarious, and the moral struggle that Bobby faces as an artist of color is as poignant as it was almost thirty years ago. On the eve of the film’s Blu-ray release from Olive Films, I spoke with Townsend about the making of the movie and its impact on his development as a filmmaker. I started by asking him where the idea for Hollywood Shuffle originated.
Townsend: I was going out on some great auditions, and then there were some really bad auditions for stereotypical roles. Keenen Ivory Wayans and I would go on these auditions and laugh at the parts, which were pimps, runaway slaves … we thought it was really funny. The scenes in Hollywood Shuffle depicting the audition process are not that far-fetched – they were very close to our experiences! We’d see some actors who were very proper, Harvard and Yale trained, and they’d have to read for these parts where they’re saying “I ain’t be got no weapon!” and the casting directors would say “You’re not black enough.” Or the casting directors would be on the phone and eating their lunch while you’re pouring your heart out doing an emotional scene. There are also actors who will try to psych you out. The scene in Hollywood Shuffle where the other actor says to me, “Don’t sell out, Bobby, all they want us to do is play butlers and slaves,” was based on something that happened to me when I was auditioning for A Soldier’s Story. There was an actor who kept saying, “Yeah, they got the white man trying to tell the black man’s story,” and I’m sitting there thinking, really? It seems like a good script to me. Then they call this guy and he jumps up with a smile – “Here I come, yes sir!”
After I did A Soldier’s Story, I went to my agent and said “I want to do more movies like this,” and my agent said, “Robert, they only do one black movie a year, and you just did it, so be happy.” I auditioned for The Color Purple and I didn’t get the part so I said, “Oh man, I’m gonna miss my black movie this year!” I had $60,000 in the bank from doing commercials and movies, and everybody was like “Are you going to get a Porsche? Are you going to get a Jag?” I decided, no, I’m going to make a movie. I talked to Keenen and said let’s make a movie about everything that we’re going through, and we wrote it together and that’s how it got started.
Filmmaker: The script as you and Keenen structured it has a central story of a young actor trying to make it, and then there are a lot of comic set pieces and parodies that you build around that. What was the writing process like? Did you guys get everything down on paper first or did you write sketches and rewrite as you were shooting?
Townsend: We laid out a simple blueprint of where we wanted the movie to go and we knew the funny chunks we wanted – like the Sam Ace sequence with the black detective, which came from the fact that I was a big fan of Humphrey Bogart and wanted to do a black-and-white parody of things like The Maltese Falcon. The movie critic stuff came from the fact that we would always complain that the critics didn’t understand our stories so we needed some brothers to be critics. It evolved as money would come in, then run out and give us time to think about it … plus we had some really funny people in the movie who knew how to improvise. People like Dom Irrera, Damon Wayans, John Witherspoon, and Franklin Ajaye were really strong comedians, and they could take the jokes we had written and add their own.
Filmmaker: Well, the cast is great all the way around. You’ve got some younger people who weren’t famous then but would go on to become important actors or directors in their own right, and then you had Paul Mooney, who was already a hugely influential figure in American comedy.
Townsend: We all idolized Paul. I knew a lot of the other actors because I had auditioned against them and gotten their numbers after seeing how good they were. Our casting directors, Jaki Brown and Toni Livingston, got the word out that I was making the movie and brought other people in, and the rest came from Keenen and I being on the comedy circuit and knowing who was good and just calling people up.
Filmmaker: In the early 1980s when you made the movie the independent film landscape hadn’t quite exploded the way it would a few years later. There weren’t as many precedents for what you were trying to do. Did you have any influences or role models you looked to?
Townsend: I knew about Melvin Van Peebles doing Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and I had read about Oscar Micheaux, who wrote, directed, produced, and handled distribution. But they were legends, they were kind of untouchable. My strength came from the fact that I started in the theater when I was fifteen years old, working both on the south side and the west side of Chicago. There was a theater called XBAG, the Experimental Black Actor’s Guild, and I was the youngest member. I saw people of color writing, directing, and producing, so the concept of being a director didn’t seem far-fetched. Later I did extra work for seven years when I was in New York City, and that helped me learn a lot about directing too. If I could get a line or a special bit I made more money, so I really watched how the scene was set up to make sure I got upgraded – in a way I was teaching myself how to direct.
Filmmaker: You mentioned that as you were making the movie you would run out of money and have to wait for more. Once you burned through what you had in your savings, where did the rest come from?
Townsend: I went through my initial 60,000 really fast, so then I would go on the road and do stand-up to make more money. Once I started, making a movie became like a drug – I was strung out! At one point I came home desperate to finish a scene I had started, and there was nothing in my mail but applications for credit cards. I didn’t want to tell anybody, because then they would think the movie was cheap, but I got a bunch of cards and charged certain things. Then I got some gas cards, and if I couldn’t afford to pay people I put gas in their car. The movie took twelve days to shoot, spread out over 2½ years.
Filmmaker: It certainly doesn’t look like a cheap movie. The lighting is actually quite beautiful, and you had cinematographer Peter Deming at the beginning of his career, before he went on to do big movies like Oz: The Great and Powerful and Mulholland Drive and a bunch of other stuff.
Townsend: Peter really watched my back, because when you’re acting and directing someone else has got to make sure the frame is right. I didn’t know the language of how to talk to a director of photography – I would just say to Peter, “Light me like they used to light Billy Dee Williams!”
Filmmaker: I love the way you guys replicate certain looks, like the black-and-white photography in the noir sequence or the flat video of the “Batty Boy” sitcom, which looks disturbingly close to most of the TV shows I used to watch as a kid.
Townsend: It was a beautiful collaboration with Peter. I would tell him what I had in mind and he would know exactly how to light it and what film stock and lenses to use to get the look I wanted – when I saw how he was lighting the noir sequence I was like “Oh yeah,” because I grew up on Touch of Evil and The Maltese Falcon. For the sitcom stuff, sitcoms are always really bright with no edge, so that inspired Peter’s approach. Peter obviously understood comedy – he went on to do Austin Powers – and he really protected me, suggesting push-ins and blocking that would help get more across in each shot. Because you have to understand, I was in front of the camera too and worrying about all kinds of things – including watching out for the police! – I needed Peter as another set of eyes.
Filmmaker: I take it you were watching out for police because you didn’t have permits…
Townsend: When we scouted locations, my rule was that if the police couldn’t see us it was a good location. We also shot our exteriors on Sunday mornings; for the “Black Acting School” we met at my house at 5:30am on a Sunday, then drove together to Mandeville Canyon and climbed up through all these little crevices and things. I said, “if the police want to crawl all the way up here to get us, they’re welcome to it!”
In other cases I learned the value of bartering – to shoot the “jive time Jimmy” stuff we had to move refrigerators. I saw all this trash and old refrigerators and heaters outside the location, and I told the owner, “Me and my boys’ll move all that if you let us shoot inside for two days.” We rented two vans, one for the actors and one for the equipment, and we would have to do wardrobe changes really fast because I could only do three takes of each scene – otherwise the police would come. Sometimes actors who thought they were going to be runaway slaves would suddenly have to throw on clothes and be zombie pimps! We just had to get in and get out – it was like Mission: Impossible.
The other thing is, we were shooting with short ends – it was 35mm, but we were shooting with leftover film, so sometimes I would only have thirty seconds in the camera, or a minute and a half. Looking back I realize it was kind of a high-wire act – now we take it for granted because we shoot everything on digital and you can shoot until the cows come home, but back then we were always running out of film and would have to get more short ends.
Filmmaker: Were you editing as you shot, or did you get all the footage in the can first and then begin the editing process?
Townsend: We were editing as we went along. The craziest thing is, when we first started editing we were working out of a porno house in Chatsworth. I was in a small room with twelve other editors who were all working on pornos while I cut Hollywood Shuffle, so I would hear moaning and “Put your leg up!” “Turn your head around!” These guys would be sitting around smoking cigars and editing Deep Throat 12 or something.
Filmmaker: Once you had it put together how did you get it out into the world? There weren’t as many big festivals back then where you could launch an independent film.
Townsend: No, but there were some players then that don’t exist now that were interested in indie film, like Island and a few others. We just started screening it for those companies, and I think our third screening was for Samuel Goldwyn’s company. Sam – God bless him, he passed away recently – he said “I don’t know what a Jeri Curl is, but that’s funny!” And that film took me around the world, man – I went to Germany, France, England, Norway…I remember sitting with Johnny Carson, whose show I always wanted to do. As a stand-up, that’s the dream, and there I was, on Carson showing a scene from this movie I made in my apartment.
Filmmaker: Did you get any kind of reaction from Siskel and Ebert to the “sneakin’ into the movies” scene?
Townsend: Roger Ebert loved it. He would wag his finger at me when we would run into each other at film festivals and say that even though we were making fun of him he thought it was great. Recently I saw his wife at the premiere of Steve James’s documentary on Roger and shared a beautiful moment talking with her.
Filmmaker: After Hollywood Shuffle you went on to do several big studio movies like The Five Heartbeats and Meteor Man. Having done both kinds of filmmaking, what do you think Hollywood Shuffle gained from its limited resources? Do you think it would have been better if you had had Fox or MGM money like you did on your later films?
Townsend: It was the best film school anybody ever could have hoped for, and it taught me my manners as a director. It gave me discipline and a greater respect for the budget all the way around, from locations to catering to extras, because when it’s your own money you’re watching people at that craft service table thinking “You’ve had enough! Put that chicken down, it’s got to last all night!” That stays in your brain, even when you go on to make bigger movies and television shows. One day I was shooting something thinking “We have to get this done before the police come,” and then I realized, wait – I have the police with me now, working on the production. So I still try to get as much out of the budget as humanly possible, even when it’s not my money – it’s still my money. That’s what I learned from Hollywood Shuffle.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and iTunes. He also hosts a monthly podcast series on the American Cinematographer website and serves as a programming consultant at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles.